Biographer Andrew Roberts recently published The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III. The book is a detailed biography of the monarch who lost America. It’s so detailed that it likely contains more than some readers will care know about the King. Roberts had complete and unprecedented access to the royal archives and offers an almost daily account of George’s life.
The central tenet of Robert’s book is that far from being a tyrant who oppressed his colonials, George was a conscientious and diligent head of state. Roberts seems ambivalent about the reasons for the American Revolution and its successful conclusion. Of course, from the British perspective it was an unsuccessful end. He blames poor British generalship, the problem of fighting a war 3,000 miles from the decision makers, sticking with Lord North as Prime Minister for too long, and George’s reluctance out of a sense of decency from waging all out war as causes for losing the war. Ultimately, he decides that after the defeat of the French in the Seven Years War all impediments to westward expansion were removed and British dominion in the 13 colonies was no longer needed; thus independence was inevitable.
Alone among the five Hanoverian kings, George was abstemious, decent, was a loving and faithful husband, and was acutely aware of his position in a constitutional monarchy. While he had the right to do so, he never in his long reign vetoed an act of parliament. He also had a loving relationship with his father (Frederick Prince of Wales) who predeceased him leaving him as heir-apparent to his grandfather George II. This was also a unique relationship among Hanoverian rulers and their heirs. George IV, George’s son, was an utter lout of whom everybody thought lowly.
George became king in 1760 at age 22. Two years later he appointed his tutor Lord Bute as his first Prime Minister. Though in love with Lady Sarah Lennox, sister of Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, he did not marry her as the demands of state required a diplomatically more suitable wife. In 1761 the King married Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, whom he met on their wedding day. Despite this arranged marriage, the monarch was notoriously uxorious. He never took a mistress and was devoted to his wife until mental illness drove them apart. This act of putting his duty first characterized his entire reign, at least when he was sane. He was almost pathologically conscientious. This devotion to his office sometimes had the ill effect of stubbornness to the point where the country’s well-being suffered.
George produced a massive amount of correspondence and notes, much in his own hand. Roberts appears to have perused all of these notes and epistles which allows him to detail the activities of the King to an unprecedented depth. George was interested in much more than government. Music (particularly that of Handel), literature, science, and technology occupied much of his time and attention. He amassed a library of about 80,000 books. He assembled an art collection of great quality. About half of the Royal Collection, which is largest private one in the world, was amassed by George. He was on good terms with Samuel Johnson who strongly supported him. He read Gibbon as each volume of his great discourse on the decline of the Roman Empire appeared.
He was especially interested in astronomy. He supported the work of the great astronomer William Herschel who duly discovered Uranus. His very large collection of scientific and measuring instruments is still on display in London’s Scientific Museum.
He was personally brave. He reacted to the several assassination attempts directed against him with coolness and aplomb.
Of course his memory is dominated by the loss of his American colonies. Roberts, as mentioned above, thinks the colonialists were headed for independence irrespective of what George did. He even considers, near the end of the book, that America eventually might have swallowed England – which in a metaphorical sense it has. Nevertheless, even after losing America the British Empire continued to grow to reach a dimension so big that it was larger than any other in history.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence is one of the world’s great expression of freedom. Its first paragraphs are a soaring expression of liberty written in deathless prose. It is followed by 28 specific grievances directed at the King. Roberts argues that only two of them justified rebellion: the 17th (that he had imposed taxes without the colonists’ consent) and the 22nd (that Parliament had been given the power to legislate for the colonies). Later in the book the author mitigates these charges by showing how light was the hand of rule from across the sea. He sees the declaration as one of the most successful and artful constructions of propaganda in world history. Regardless, of how one views the famous document, there’s no denying its effectiveness. Ironically, the American President has come to wield far more power than George ever did.
The King’s bouts of mania remain mysterious to this day. At one time the disorder of porphyrin metabolism, porphyria, was invoked as its cause. This disorder, genetic in origin, seems a poor explanation. Roberts favors bipolar disease with mania vearing into psychosis. This is possible, but the King was aware that he was losing his reason as each episode progressed. This is an unusual feature of severe bipolar disorder.
Regardless of the pathogenesis,George had five episodes of madness. They occurred in 1764–65 (a mild one, previously unnoticed by historians), 1788–89, 1801, 1804, and 1810–20. The last bout was complicated by senile dementia and was permanent necessitating a Regency. To this was added blindness and complete loss of hearing. Despite his infirmities, the King continued to play his harpsichord; it was once owned by Handel. His end was sadder than that of Lear.
Robert’s attempt to rehabilitate George III mostly succeeds. But, I wouldn’t go so far as to call him George the Great. He was a very competent ruler who strictly observed the constitution under which he reigned. The American debacle aside, his kingdom thrived, at least by the standards of his age. His empire expanded. The long war against the French was finally successful though he was mentally unable to appreciate the savor of victory. He remains the longest serving King of England, his length exceeded only by Queens Victoria and Elizabeth. He was a conscientious gentleman who did his best. Roberts tells his story in excellent style and detail. Whether the reader is up for more than 700 pages on George is a personal decision. I found the volume a treat.